Wild web still needs laws

When my wife fell pregnant with our first child, I did the logical thing. I took off on a six-week motorcycle journey around the northern half of India on a Royal Enfield Bullet 500.

Callous at first glance, it was actually a blessing to my wife who was pretty crook with morning sickness and keen for peace and quiet. She still thanks me for being absent for the first trimester.

For me, it was a chance to get up close and personal with the Indian Himalayas. This included the experience of being shelled by the Pakistani Army when riding into Kashmir (it wasn't personal, they shelled every afternoon), and getting the chance to spend half a day buying a handmade oriental rug in the floating village in Srinagar's Dal Lake.

After selecting the rug and concluding the exhaustive bargaining process, I commented to the carpet trader, Waseem, that it was a perfect rug. He immediately corrected me: “No sir, only God is perfect, this rug has an intentional mistake, an incorrect stitch that the weaver puts in. We don't want to offend the creator.”

His phrase came back to me last week when I listened to several of the sessions at NetHui 2012. Staged and largely funded by Internet NZ, NetHui is a 500-person grouping of the digerati, covering everything from cyberbullying and security through to public policy and web freedom.

Although last year's affair got bogged down in overly technical discussions by the anorak-wearing set, this year's gig was a lot more consistent and topical. The Privacy Commission used it as an opportunity to get feedback on proposed new laws, New Zealand's most internet savvy judge David Harvey pushed out the copyright boat, and former United States federal trade commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour ran through some landmark findings against Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed on everything. The room was divided about the suggested new power for the Privacy Commission to require a website to remove offensive personal postings and documents. One common criticism was that the process of indexing by search engines, and sharing through social networks, would mean removal orders would be ineffectual. A website operator can be told to take something down, but once it's been indexed, cached or shared on the internet, there's not much point.

A similar argument was floated at a session run by blogging guru David Farrar. In a session aiming to start people percolating on copyright in preparation for the 2013 review, Farrar asked participants to consider how the rights of content creators might be balanced against the rights of consumers.

He asked what remedies should be available to producers when they have made content available to buy online, but people chose to download it unlawfully rather than pay. What legal consequences are fair? A common theme from participants was that it is pointless trying to legislate against such copying because it will happen anyway, whether it's in New Zealand or overseas.

Judge Harvey led a session on the Law Commission's recommendations for an online communication disputes tribunal. Nominally, this would provide a decisive remedy for harmful online speech, where one person defames or harasses another.

Dr Harvey asked participants what they understood by such speech harms and to what extent they were prepared to see a tribunal restrict free speech and issue take-down notices for offending material. A common response again was: “How meaningful can such take-down orders be?”

It sounded like the proposed solution to the online challenges of privacy, copyright and speech harms were all being met by effectively the same protestation: on the internet you can't control everything, so get used to it.

But the web is not a heck of a lot different to the offline world. There's a law against fraud, but it doesn't stop people from trying to defraud you. However, it does provide a means of redress and it's useful if fraudsters try it on.

Five years ago the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act came into effect. At the time it was criticised by many (including me) as being a waste of time. It proved us all wrong, having had a positive impact on reducing local spam email, and technology in the form of anti-spam filters assisted on the international front.

Like the life it imitates and archives, the internet isn't faultless, but this is no excuse for refusing to put in place meaningful laws and protections for those that live there. After all, as my Kashmiri rug weaver would tell you, only the gods are perfect.

- Mike “MOD” O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager, author and professional director.

Disclosure of interest: MOD was on the NetHui 2012 Board.